The fanatic's guide to factory shopping

Julie Aschkenazy meets Gill Cutress, guru of bargain hunters
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Gill Cutress is addicted to bargain hunting. Yet the red sale stickers of high street shops do not tempt her. She prefers to go to the source: the factory shops. Over the past 10 years she made a career of visiting over 1,200 shops and has travelled more than a quarter of a million miles in search of the ultimate bargain.

It is in these (often well hidden) factory shops that manufacturers sell off samples, excess and returned items, ends-of-lines and those goods which fail to meet quality controls, to the general public. Shoppers can normally expect to save 30 per cent, sometimes 50 per cent on the high street prices and occasionally as much as 70 per cent which Gill describes "a bonus".

"I got into factory shopping by accident," she explains. "I had been transferred to Nottinghamshire in my job and factory shops are a way life there. I saw a sign for one and stopped the car out of curiosity. I didn't know what a factory shop was at that stage. I found a terrific range of items and bought myself a dressing gown at a very good price. I thought: I'll get a book about these shops." It turned out that no such book existed.

Redundancy from work provided Gill with an opportunity to do some hard research and put together a publication. Thus the series of Factory Shop Guides was born.

I had pictured a home cottage industry and was rather surprised when I discovered the Factory Shop premises were smart Clapham Mews offices where Gill and her partner Rolf Stricker, are helped by six part-timers. "It just snowballed. Rolf joined me after the first two years because I was in a state of collapse. We used to work from home but we had computers in all the bedrooms and ended up having business meetings sitting on the edge of the bath. So we had to get premises." Everything is done in-house from research to publicity and approaching book shops.

By their nature, the shops are often situated in the back of beyond and publicity is patchy, to say the least. Some are happy to invite the public in, others are a little more sensitive as they don't want to alienate high street chains by making it obvious they are selling direct to the public at low prices. "The sensitivity is much reduced from when I started," says Gill. "In some cases it is still there. But factory shopping is different to high street shopping. High streets won't sell last season's colours or anything slightly flawed."

Although bargains range from pairs of socks upwards, the best savings can be had at the upper end of the spectrum. Designer wear, curtains, carpets, furniture and jewellery are all excellent value. "I have had to be selective over the years. My best ever bargain to wear was a designer cashmere dress for pounds 90 (the high street price was pounds 450). My partner and I describe ourselves as walking rejects, everything we wear, buy for the house or put into the garden comes from a factory shop.

"One of the best buys for the house is carpeting. You may be spending several hundred pounds but at the same time you save hundreds. We bought an industrial-strength stair carpet for pounds 40 which a hotel had commissioned. The factory was unable to stop the machines on the exact number of yards so there were overruns and remnants which we were able to snap up."

Another good reason for seeking out carpet factories is that, unlike at high street shops that have fixed stock, it is sometimes possible to become involved in the production process. Some factory shops will oblige you by making unusual widths or dying to your own colour specification at no extra cost. Furniture, too, is a good buy because of the big outlay-big savings equation. Another bonus is that here, too, you can sometimes have a say over the finished product - the factory might be prepared to make a piece to a particular size or stain it to match your existing furniture.

Whether it's the thrill of the chase, the adrenalin that goes with rummaging in a bargain box of designer samples, or simply a day trip out for the family, such shopping can be a very variable experience. "I once got two letters in the same post bag about the same shop," says Gill. "One said the shop was very poor, the other said `this is absolutely brilliant - I fixed up my 10 grandchildren with shirts and socks at unbelievably low prices!'" Watch out, you could get hooked.

Bags and luggage: Bargain Baggage Factory Shop, Bugatti House, Norham Rd, North Shields (0191 258 4451).

Carpets: Jorgus Carpets, Grimeford Mill, Grimeford Lane, Anderton (01257 482636).

Knitwear: Alan Paine Knitwear Ltd, Scats Country Store, Brighton Road, Godalming, Surrey (01483 419962).

Upholstery and curtain fabrics: Waterside Mill Shop, 359 Sheffield Road, Chesterfield, Derbyshire (01246 456886).

Glass and crystal: Caithness Glass Ltd, Visitors Centre, Inveralmond, Perth, (01738 637373).

Designer wear: Nicole Farhi and French Connection, 75-83 Fairfield Rd, London E3 (0181-981 3931 x2O3).